Marshall Manson and Craig Mullaney identify the key questions that board members should consider when it comes to social media.
An early twentieth century political and communications axiom exhorts leaders and businesses to resist the temptation to “pick a fight with people who buy ink by the barrel.” A useful truism, to be sure, for a world where newspapers and professional media organizations were key forces in defining reputation. These days, as countless examples have brought to life, no one needs to own a printing press in order to have a major impact. Social media platforms and mobile phones equip everyone with the tools to capture and distribute content and, therefore, enable anyone to have influence, sometimes only for a moment.
This wholesale realignment and democratization of communications hold profound consequences for business. Every business leader, and the boards to which they are accountable, needs to appreciate the powerful role that social media can play in shaping your business’s reputation and how it engages key audiences. The landscape offers real opportunities, but there are also critical risks to manage and mitigate. In this chapter, we explore social media at a strategic level, and offer a series of questions that directors should be considering as part of a broader business strategy. We will also offer some specific thoughts on practical steps that any business or institution might consider.
Before we consider implications, we must first define our terms: social media is any internet-dependent platform that enables two or more people to establish a durable connection and share information. The most common examples are household names: Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok are all platforms that fit the definition. Each fuels content sharing and public or partially public interaction between people. Platforms like WhatsApp, Telegram, and WeChat also enable content sharing and conversation. While interactions on these platforms are private and, in some cases, highly encrypted, that doesn’t make them any less social. Indeed, in some ways, the internet’s oldest form of social media is email.
The role of social media in society is, of course, increasingly a cause for debate ... Some are concerned that the platforms are amplifying extreme voices or contributing to the polarization of politics. But no one should underestimate their significance. Indeed, their centrality to public policy debates underscores how much these platforms matter to serious enterprises, including business.
From a business perspective, the most commonly understood role for social media is within marketing. Nearly all of the platforms offer opportunities, in one form or another, for businesses to distribute content to customers (or consumers for businesses that sell through retailers). However, the opportunity for businesses goes well beyond marketing. The same tools that enable engagement with a customer or consumer audience also allow connections with other audiences, for example, investors and other key reputational stakeholders.
If opportunities are abundant, so too are the risks. During an incident or crisis, social media helps information spread in seconds instead of minutes or hours. This provides benefit to an organization seeking to quickly set the record straight or reassure investors, customers, and employees. However, it also routinely provides a venue for critics to find an audience for a negative story. Social media can enable rapid organization by critics or supporters at great scale. It can provide a vehicle for employees to voice concerns. And in an age where state actors are using social media to destabilize politics and attack businesses, social media can be an enabler for their activities, too. Most importantly, social media has driven a change in expectations for businesses. Consumers, investors, B2B buyers, policymakers, and employees expect greater transparency and access than ever before. In particular, these key audiences expect leaders to use social media as a tool to communicate more effectively and more directly than in the past. Recent events have accelerated this trend by forcing us all to be more reliant than ever before on digital platforms to keep us connected.
With all of that in mind, we identify some key questions that directors should consider when it comes to social media.